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San Francisco Travel Guide

Nob Hill and Russian Hill

In place of the quirky charm and cultural diversity that mark other San Francisco neighborhoods, Nob Hill exudes history and good breeding. Topped with some of the city's most elegant hotels, Gothic Grace Cathedral, and private blue-blood clubs, it's the pinnacle of privilege. One hill over, across Pacific Avenue, is another old-family bastion, Russian Hill. It may not be quite as wealthy as Nob

Hill, but it's no slouch—and it's got jaw-dropping views.

Nob Hill was officially dubbed during the 1870s when "the Big Four"—Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington, who were involved in the construction of the transcontinental railroad—built their hilltop estates. The lingo is thick from this era: those on the hilltop were referred to as "nabobs" (originally meaning a provincial governor from India) and "swells," and the hill itself was called Snob Hill, a term that survives to this day. By 1882 so many estates had sprung up on Nob Hill that Robert Louis Stevenson called it "the hill of palaces." But the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed all the palatial mansions except for portions of the James Flood brownstone. History buffs may choose to linger here, but for most visitors, a casual glimpse from a cable car will be enough.

Essentially a tony residential neighborhood of spiffy pieds-à-terre, Victorian flats, Edwardian cottages, and boxlike condos, Russian Hill has some of the city's loveliest stairway walks, hidden garden ways, and steepest streets—not to mention those bay views. Several stories explain the origin of Russian Hill's name. One legend has it that Russian farmers raised vegetables here for Farallon Islands seal hunters; another attributes the name to a Russian sailor of prodigious drinking habits who drowned when he fell into a well on the hill. A plaque at the top of the Vallejo Steps gives credence to the version that says sailors of the Russian-American company were buried here in the 1840s. Be sure to visit the sign for yourself—its location offers perhaps the finest vantage point on the hill.

Polk Gulch, the microhood surrounding north–south Polk Street, hugs the western edges of Nob Hill and Russian Hill but is nothing like either. It's actually two microhoods: Upper Polk Gulch, fairly classy in its northern section, runs from about Union Street south to California Street; Lower Polk Gulch, the rougher southern part, continues south from California to Geary or so.

Polk Gulch was the Castro before the Castro. It was the city's gay neighborhood into the 1970s, hosting San Francisco’s first pride parade in 1972 and several festive Halloween extravaganzas. The area became known for tranny bars and gay prostitution but has "straightened" out—lost its edge, some would say. Today the friendly saloon the Cinch, the last remnant of gay Polk, and stalwart holdovers from that earlier time—among them folksy Grubstake, where you can get a giant burger until 4 am nightly—share space with newer midrange restaurants, a passel of bars and nightclubs, and some browsable, funky stores, not to mention two great doughnut shops and the Antique Vibrator Museum.

Downhill and down-market from its hilltop neighbors, Polk Gulch has been flirting with gentrification for almost a decade, but (female) prostitutes still walk the streets of the Lower Gulch, and the neighborhood feels closer in spirit to the Tenderloin, which it borders. Come to see a lively, scrappy, down-to-earth slice of the city that's forever in transition but rarely seems to change.

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